How I am Learning to Listen

Why did the London riots start? What was the Treaty of Versailles? How do you spell onomatopoeia? What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s your favourite Leonardo DiCaprio film? These are not the questions you would expect to be asked on a Monday afternoon in a headhunting organisation.

But, for the last eight months, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend one hour a week with a Highbury Grove student, imparting him with as much knowledge I can muster about; Shakespeare, where to put commas and making sure he has the tools to raise his overall grade to at least an A (this is our backup grade- it’s the A* that we’re really after!)


I signed up to volunteer with The Access Project after a friend of mine said it is the best thing about his week. Could volunteering really be that fun? I couldn’t see how digging out your old GCSE English texts and rereading Of Mice and Men would be enjoyable.

I had made a decision to give some of my time to volunteering. Out of curiosity, I did some research into The Access Project. I felt our values as organisations were closely aligned, so I got in touch with them directly. The Access Project greeted my enquiry warmly and were happy to tell me more about their aim as a social enterprise. Quite simply: they want to help students improve their grades and get into a top university.

Good idea, right?

The Access Project works closely with schools where more than 30% of the children are on free school meals, and attainment and aspiration levels are low. It’s a sad truth that the link between income and attainment at schools is stronger in the UK than almost anywhere else in the developed world.  Needless to say, I signed up promptly and began my journey tutoring English Literature and Language once a week to an enthusiastic (for a 15 year old boy), football-crazy-Shakespeare-loathing-Year 10 Student.

It wasn’t until I started planning for our first set of tutorials that reality hit me… I would be the person to correct his spelling; how could I do that, when I rely on MS Word every day to guide me? I would be the person to guide him on structuring an essay well; do I even know how to structure an essay? Where do I start a new paragraph again?! I would also be the person to encourage and help structure his ideas and thoughts around some of the greatest works of literature ever written. No pressure then….

After the initial panic of realising that I am going to be an important part of his secondary education, I started to focus on how I would deliver the sessions each week. And in doing so, I’ve actually realised that I’m learning a few things along the way.

I’ve started to really relish the silence of a ‘pregnant pause’. In asking my tutee a stretching question followed by a prolonged silence, it means he will eventually start filling the silence and give me the answer I’m looking for. Sounding familiar? This is one of the most common techniques in negotiating/buying scenarios; it’s about knowing when to listen, not talk.

Tutoring has taught me that ‘going off on tangents’ isn’t always a bad thing. By actually taking the time to follow through on a thought process, and making sure that both parties fully understand the ‘bigger picture’, before drilling down into detail means that we’re better able to contextualise our rationale and decision making. Again, this is something that can be instrumental in business conversations.

I’ve also learnt that no amount of planning will prepare me to think on my feet! You can plan things meticulously, minute by minute, but it’s often those moments where I PBE (play it by ear) and change the strategy or activity in a tutorial that matter the most. It’s when we begin to address any gaps in his knowledge and switch focus to a more pertinent issue that some of the most important learning starts to take place.  Again, this can sound familiar to business scenarios where ‘thinking on your feet’ can often mean having some challenging conversations and, in doing so, further develops you as an individual and your relationships with clients.

In return for helping him with his studies; he is helping me develop my listening, planning and personal delivery skills.  After only eight months in, I know that there is still a lot of work to do in learning how to become a good tutor, but I’m grateful for the journey so far.

Tutoring for The Access Project has enriched my Monday afternoons. Being so passionate in helping graduates make the first steps of their career has really motivated me to do better things with young talent. Knowing that my tutee is going to go on to do his A Levels and is very proactively looking at Universities, at this stage in his development gives me a great appreciation for young people in the UK. They do want to learn, they’re intellectually curious, and they are going to do everything in their power to get what they want.

Megan Nee is a Consultant at Futureboard Consulting and works across a range of sectors within the graduate recruitment market. Megan is passionate about working closely with students from a diverse range of backgrounds in an attempt to look beyond UCAS points and degree grades. If you’re coming towards the end of your degree and would be interested in having an informal discussion, please call 0203 301 8844.

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